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Some Minnesota legislators revived their push to overhaul the state’s solitary confinement laws, removing a key protection for prisoners with mental health as a concession to keep the measure alive.

Chief sponsor Rep. Nick Zerwas, R-Elk River, vowed to continue pushing for the scaled back measure, despite deep concerns. He likened placing someone with a mental illness in solitary to punishing a person for having brain cancer. “We just wouldn’t treat them like that,” he said.

State Rep. Debra Hilstrom, DFL-Brooklyn Park, called the new bill “lip service” that doesn’t adequately address the need for changes.

“I think that it is wrong to put things in the bill that don’t actually go anywhere near fixing the problem,” she said.

Zerwas acknowledged the amended bill wasn’t a perfect solution, but called it a “first step” in reforms that could realistically pass this year.

Zerwas introduced the new legislation Tuesday after a more robust effort failed last week. The new language, which was added to a broader package of public safety proposals, would create more transparency and limit how long a person can spend in solitary, but it no longer includes a mandate to divert inmates with mental illnesses to alternative punishment. Zerwas vowed to continue fighting for reform in coming years.

Even without mental health protection, advocates are praising forward motion. Sue Abderholden, executive director for Minnesota’s National Alliance on Mental Health, said she will continue pushing legislators to fund more staffing this year. Abderholden, who helped craft the bill, was optimistic to see it progress Tuesday, she said. “I can tell you that nobody thought we’d get it through any committee.”

Debate over cost

If passed into law, the bill would require corrections officials to file an annual report with legislators detailing the use of solitary — officially called “restrictive housing” — in state prisons. A warden would need to review cases of anyone in solitary for 15 days — the time after which a United Nations investigator says psychological torture can occur — and the commissioner must personally review any stay longer than 60 days. Prisoners in solitary could get out quicker with good behavior through a graduated system, reinforcing changes the Department of Corrections (DOC) began implementing last year. Inmates could not be released from prison directly from isolation — a now-common practice lawmakers call a major public safety concern. There are currently no laws in Minnesota addressing the practice of solitary confinement, and Zerwas pointed out that the bill would also be the first to authorize its use.

The primary debate over the bill has been about price. Previous versions would require DOC to hire more behavior health and security staff — a first draft was projected to cost $22 million over two years. Zerwas said he amended the bill to eliminate cost, though DOC Commissioner Tom Roy noted that even things likes data collection for the annual report will cost some money.

Gov. Mark Dayton also asked the Legislature to approve nearly $7 million to reform the state’s practice of solitary confinement and provide better mental health treatment in Minnesota prisons.

The money, in Dayton’s 2018-19 budget, would fund 48 new positions — including security, behavioral health and caseworker staff — to provide more out-of-cell time for prisoners, cognitive treatment and classes designed to reduce rearrest rates.

The use of solitary confinement in Minnesota dates back to the state’s first prison. It’s generally used to punish problem inmates. The practice has become increasingly controversial in recent years as research has shown its potential for devastating psychological harm — what some call cruel and unusual punishment — with no rehabilitative value or evidence showing it actually makes prisons safer.

In December, the Star Tribune published a series examining solitary confinement in Minnesota, finding prisons sent more than 17,500 inmates to solitary over the past decade. Of those, 1,600 spent six months or longer in isolation and more than 400 served one year or longer. Many live with mental illnesses exacerbated in isolation and they come out in worse condition, sometimes pulling them into a vicious cycle that leads to more misbehavior and more solitary time. The report also found that 700 people left prison straight from solitary over a six-year period.

Andy Mannix • 612-673-4036